22 July 2011

I'm not a conservative and neither is Toby Young

On top of the usual preoccupations, as a teenager I was preoccupied with questions of what stays the same and what changes to fit the times. True, this is not your average teenage behaviour; but I never felt obliged to be average. When I was about 18 I would have excreted something like this, but I didn't. Someone called Toby Young did so and should have known better.

Before I get to that, let's look at Young's site: "No Sacred Cows", it's called, designed to set him up as some sort of iconoclast (while somehow, at the same time, being a conservative - nope, me neither). The notion of sacred cows comes from Southern Asian belief systems such as Hinduism and Jainism, where adherents believe the spirits of their ancestors are embodied in cattle. The presence of cattle in those societies serve as reminders that those alive today are inheritors of what has come before. For those people, to disrespect cattle is therefore to disrespect their ancestors and what they have bequeathed. It seems like an embodiment of Edmund Burke's notion of society as a compact between those who have gone before, those who are alive and those who are yet to come.

To trumpet "no sacred cows" isn't conservatism, it's nihilism. It can only be explained in racist terms, as though these people and others like them ought not take pride in their ancestors or are showing such pride in the 'wrong' way. There is nothing conservative about dismissing the idea of sacred cows.

Then there's his motto: "Comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable". If I had to sum up socialism in six words, those are the ones I'd choose. I certainly wouldn't have that as a personal motto.

I recognise that the comfort/afflict thing is a journosphere cliché - and yes it is a cliché, having moved from a frequently-used expression owing to the death of its meaning. Those whose job involves shouting through a widow’s letterbox or making the children of a celebrity adulterer cry are doing the reverse of that cute little saying, not fulfilling it (while I have no proof that Young has engaged in these behaviours directly, they are not inconsistent with his piece on "conservatism" nor his elsewhere professed love for the media and those who work are employed in it).

So much for the site itself: now onto Young's article. Let us scroll past the youthful banalities that serve as the foundation for his life and go to what political substance there is:
My only quibble with the Coalition is that its public service reforms aren’t radical enough.
So Young is a radical and not a conservative. A conservative would be mindful that the public needs to be served, and that such service ought to be the focus regardless of the method of providing it; and that any transition in service from a taxpayer-funded model to some other form ought be made with the minimum of disruption to those who are served, the public. To wrestle in the gutter with statists in the battle over what the state does and doesn't provide and how much it all costs might be jolly fun, but from a conservative perspective it misses the point.
So my 14-year-old self would be appalled, right? ... Well, yes, up to a point.
For God's sake, no conservative can does or should cavil before some adolescent. This phrase "up to a point" comes from Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop, in which a character employed by a media mogul uses this equivocation when he fears to contradict his employer directly. Punks have names like Johnny and Sid, not Toby. Get a grip, man.
Back then, I felt like an outsider, an alienated youth, whereas today I’m a fully-paid up member of the petit bourgeoisie.
I bet Young's 14-year-old self didn't earn the money with which he purchased NMTB, and nor did he seriously contemplate nicking it. He was always a member of the petit bourgeoisie, because they we buy products from shops to affirm who they we are (regardless of whether the object in question is a square sleeve of cardboard containing a vinyl disk or a "Jermyn Street shirt", about which more later).
If my neighbours play their music too loud I knock on their door and tell them to turn it down and if I see anyone dropping litter in my front garden, look out!
I've got two small children and live in a quiet street: I have no idea about my neighbours' musical tastes. If they were to play loud music I'd rip the relevant fuse out of their fusebox and sell it back to them only once they fully understood the consequences of disturbing the peace. As for litter, look out for what? A tap on the shoulder and "excuse me, would you mind ..."? What are you, some sort of enviro-nazi?
But, fundamentally, my political views haven’t changed. As a 14-year-old anarchist, I felt the same implicit mistrust of the state as I do now. The reason I support the cuts is because I think the state has become too big. Between 1998/99 and 2008/09, public expenditure increased by more than 50%, leaving Britain with a national debt of over a trillion pounds. We’ve borrowed so much that it cost the British taxpayer £43 billion last year just to pay the interest. That’s £120 million a day.
Conservatives talk about cutting the size of the state, but while they trim it a bit when in government they never actually reduce it substantially and keep it down. They make a great fuss of trimming a few pennies from useful things like public schools while subsidising things that should be able to sustain themselves, like tourism. Thatcher in Britain, Reagan in the US and Howard in Australia all perpetuated public service bloat and waste; the effects of government spending as a proportion of GDP below a certain level exist only as make-work schemes for economic modellers at so-called "think tanks", they are not something we are in any danger of realising in our daily lives or in that of the nation.

In Australia, a conservative government came to office in 1996 and reduced public service numbers. Canberra experienced a boom in restaurants (people held farewell parties for departing colleagues) and home renovations (even though the value of real estate declined, dumped public servants used their payouts to renovate their houses), and then when government inevitably expanded those same people were rehired. It was all more expensive than simply keeping capable people and getting rid of the incompetent, which is what a conservative would have supported. It made a mockery of libertarian notions of small government generally, and particularly the idea that conservative politics (UK Conservatives, Australian Liberals, US Republicans) can be entrusted to reduce the size of government with a view to making it better serve those who are governed.
I agree with Adele that the top rate of tax is too high. Why should a gifted musician and performer, who’s worked hard to get where she is, be forced to hand over half her income to the government on pain of imprisonment?
The last time Britain had such a high rate of taxes, a band of scouser millionaires had a three-minute whinge about it:
Don't ask me what I want it for (Taxman Mister Wilson)
If you don't want to pay some more (Taxman Mister Heath)
'Cause I’m the taxman
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

- The Beatles Taxman
That song is better than it looks, I promise.

Another band of millionaires in a similar position, the Rolling Stones, moved their operations to a low-tax jurisdiction where they decided it was better to pay spivvy accountants than, indirectly, teachers and nurses (the very sorts of people who bought their records and made them wealthy in the first place), cauing the sort of social dislocation that appals conservatives. Those spivvy accountants then proceeded to rip off the band, and there was nothing that the British state could do when that band appealled to them for redress.

Tell Adele that Wilson and Heath were Britain's political leaders in the late 1960s. If she wanted to cover that today, tell her that substituting those names with Cameron and Miliband won't scan. Ask Adele whether she's been to Athens lately: from what I hear it's a low-tax paradise.
My political philosophy can be summed up in the words of Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform. “I don’t want to abolish government,” he said. “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it in to the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
I have always found those words chilling, even when I went through a libertarian phase in the late 1980s. They call to mind not something heroic on which great things can be built, but the horrible fates of Milly Dowler or Lieby Kletzky.
That’s what I believed when I was a punk and that’s what I believe now.
Well fuck you, weirdo. You have the right to remain silent; anything you do say, etc.
The Black Bloc anarchists believe that capitalism is the root of all evil and once you’ve built a socialist Jerusalem there will be no need for laws and police officers and nasty things like that. In their view, the state just exists to protect the interests of the top hat-wearing ruling class – Lord Snooty and his Pals. Once they’ve been put up against the wall and shot – or, at the very least, denuded of their property – the state will no longer be necessary ...
No, they're pathetic and excitable young fools like Charlie Gilmour, who as a small-c charlie is closer to 1977 Toby Young than Young today.
What I would dispute is that it’s possible to have a truly socialist society without a heavy dose of state control.
And if you were a conservative, you'd believe that a heavy dose of state control is bally well what is required to keep the socialists in line, of the very sort that will keep potent threats to all that we hold dear (like Charlie Gilmour, apparently) off the streets.
If history teaches us anything it’s that high-minded political experiments quickly degenerate into tyrannical despotism. Shortly after the October Revolution in 1917, Lenin could rightfully claim that Russia was the free-est society in the world. Forty years later, at the time of Stalin’s death, there were two-and-a-half million political prisoners locked up in the Gulag.

Is it unfair to point to the French Revolution, the Soviet Union and Paul Pot’s Cambodia as “proof” that the kind of radical equality espoused by Black Bloc anarchists inevitably leads to state terror?
This is all very well (apart from "Paul Pot" - is he one of those celebrity chefs?), but it doesn't just apply at the political margins of places like Britain and Australia. State bloat happens under conservative governments. I get paid for having children, something my wife and I would have been inclined to do had there been no state, or a state which would have taxed us extra for the privilege. We drive past Family Relationships Centres, places where public servants will teach us how to relate to one another were we so inclined to seek their counsel. I pay to lock up asylum-seekers from Afghanistan who have a 95% likelihood of being genuine refugees and worthy of better treatment (including sharing the burden of tax revenues) as a member of the community.I could go on; the point is, conservative governments generally make these things worse, and rarely better, so it's best not to consider yourself a partisan conservative.

You cannot be governed well by those who despise government. To use a series of petit-bourgeois retail analogies:
  • You wouldn't go to a pub where the bar staff despise alcohol and the licentiousness that comes from it.
  • You wouldn't shop for clothes at a place which doesn't stock your size or chooses not to sell you what you ask for.
  • You wouldn't buy music from a place which doesn't meet your taste (let me guess: 14-year-old Toby Young went into that shop asking for Cliff Richard's latest, only to be laughed at and have Never Mind The Bollocks pressed on him).
As with all radicals, small-government gibberers regard their mistakes as "transition difficulties" rather than proof that their ideas don't and can't work.
Does [the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s] provide any evidence that socialism and anarchism can be successfully combined?
No, and nor does it vindicate the forty or so years of conservatism that followed it. Various bunches of clowns roamed around the landscape shooting, and threatening to shoot, people who disagreed with them. It didn't really matter what they called themselves or what they dreamed of. When the conservatives came in they stultified political and economic freedom in the name of "public order", they kept the population poor and ignorant not for their own sake, but because thus enfeebled they couldn't challenge those who held High Office; which is exactly how conservatives, operating under different brands, like it.

Young refers to Anarchy in the UK but fails to point out its evisceration of left-wing activism:
Is this the MPLA?
Or is this the UDA?
Or is this the IRA
I thought it was the UK
Or just another country -
Another council tenancy
In other words: you can identify with radical causes all you want, but after the thrill of imagination has worn off your grim reality has not changed. It shows the poverty of the Chomsky-Pilger worldview, where anyone having a crack at petit-bourgeois societies is to be supported by those nestled comfortably within them (1977 was the last time Pilger went after a leftwing regime. He's turned his attention to bourgeois states, with much less to work with than the Khmer Rouge afforded him, though he made sure he spelled the dictator's name correctly).

Conservatism is all about practical measures to create a better reality with the means at hand and within the context in which you find yourself. This includes the state (oh yes it does). It includes (but not to the exclusion of all else) engaging in the sort of political activity that the Black Bloc and Francoists despised and conspired to render impossible.

Never mind that song's three chords: he would be better off reconsidering the song's famous final three-word line. Which of those two exhortations is in any way conservative?
Self-interest will always trump altruism.
This doesn't explain why Young's home city of London remains intact and functioning following the terrorist attacks of July 2005 (amongst others): the vainglory of the bombers placing their salvation ahead of others' safety, the emergency services flouting occupational health and safety regulations, the denizens of that great city determined to reclaim public space and social lives (yes, including the earning of incomes) - all of them flout Young's silly rule. Altruism rules, altruism rocks. Millions of people who have better things to do go to London every year, and what they want to see are things created by altruism. Nobody would cross the street to drop litter in Toby Young's front yard unless they were on the way to somewhere else more interesting.
Family ties will always have a stronger claim on our loyalties than some abstract ideal.
When the abstract ideal is in my family's interests, and those of other like-minded families, I'll have to give up a little in the here-and-now and exercise choices at the ballot box and elsewhere to realise those interests. I want to leave my kids a sound natural environment; I can't do it all myself. I wish I had better options from the state and private companies than those before me.
We will always struggle to gain a competitive advantage over our neighbours.
Speak for yourself: sounds like you need better neighbours. I do what I need to do and the neighbours can suit themselves.
Human beings simply aren’t designed to sit around campfires singing Kumbaya ... they are fundamentally territorial and aggressive.
Why refer to your fellow human beings as "they"? Why are singing 'Kumbaya' or being territorial and aggressive the only two choices we have? Conservatives and marxists set up silly dichotomies like this. The whole idea is to expand the scope of realistic options people have, not restrict them so that they fit feeble worldviews.

In 1977, I wasn't wandering around London buying records. I was just over half Toby Young's age. I went to Sunday School at the Anglican church at the end of my street because there was nothing else to do in the small country town where I lived then. We sang 'Kumbaya':

Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya

Someone's singing Lord, kumbaya
Someone's singing Lord, kumbaya
Someone's singing Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbayah

Someone's laughing/crying/praying/sleeping, Lord, kumbaya
Oh Lord, kumbaya

I always thought 'Kumbaya' translated as "yeah, whatever" or "what do you want me to do about it?". An all-knowing God would know what people were up to anyway without us kids having to tell him. Like the sacred cows, I suppose, 'Kumbaya' inspires you to think about things which are bigger than you (which, when you're eight, is everything) and be thankful that you've known a life that, for all its occasional difficulty or banality, Milly Dowler or Lieby Kletzky might have expected but never got to have.

The Anglican Church is more conservative than it was in 1977, being the personal property not of God or even the Queen but of the Jensen family and their delegates in the money markets. Nothing happens in that church that is not within the limited imagination of those people, which is why I'll not go there to find something so awesome as the Word of God. Toby Young didn't mention the Anglican Church, something of a lapse (or a dodge?) for an English Conservative; he might find the Church as it practices there both too namby and at the same time pamby for his taste.
... their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion?
There's plenty of history out there that refutes silly reductionism like this. That stuff is prehistory, and ignores even the most rudimentary civilisations. Go find some history and stop wasting time. As an Englishman, history is all you've got.
It’s a cliché that anyone who isn’t a liberal when they’re young has no heart and anyone who isn’t a conservative when they’re old has no brain, but it’s true.
It can't be true and a cliché at the same time. That claim doesn't account for people like Winston Churchill or Robert Menzies, two men whose long careers in liberal conservatism (yes, both, at the same time, to differing degrees on a number of fronts) make the heads spin of those who insist on a strict liberal/conservative dichotomy.
The prelapsarian innocence of Eden can never be recovered.
To believe in Eden is to be part of a belief system that maintains that it can, and to be inspired to seek better from the world.
As the playwright David Mamet wrote in an essay ...
David Mamet didn't get where he is by writing essays, motherfucker. He got where he is by writing plays like American Buffalo where the character Teach is the anarcho-conservative Toby Young thinks he is. When you've listened to enough of Teach's nihilist piffle you'll predict where Teach ends up long before he gets there. If Mamet ever was a liberal it was of the Joe Lieberman dog-in-the-manger school rather than the 'Kumbaya'-singing variety.
Politicians can never be trusted. The Times journalist Louis Heron had it right: "When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself – Why is this lying bastard lying to me?"
Journalists think they are usefully employed listening to politicians. If you want to know how we are governed, the last person you'd ask is a politician, or a journalist for that matter. What sort of conservative bothers much with either?
I’ve come to accept Hobbes’s view that in the absence of a state life would be nasty, brutish and short.
But as Young has admitted, this is also true of countries where the state is very much more powerful than it is in Britain or Australia. Does this make him some sort of moderate?
But our political masters should never forget that their authority is wholly dependent on our consent. Every erosion of our liberty needs to be justified and the burden of proof rests with the state. Power flows from the bottom up, not the top down.
Our political masters will get away with what they can get away with unless they are stopped or made so fearful of losing office that they back off - but there is nothing conservative about that belief. Conservatives believe there is such a thing as Authority and it very definitely and exclusively flows from the top down. They do not believe in this kind of political reflux that Young describes nor in pagan heresies such as vox populi, vox Dei.

They most certainly do not have as much truck with Freud as Young does: besides, Freud has been overtaken by a century of psychology. A generation of politicians in Britain, Australia and other countries is in the process of unlearning that it must tailor its policies to please a conservative authoritarian (who'd like to think of himself as an iconoclast, though probably not a punk).
In my fevered imagination, the anarchist utopia I longed for would be something like the Athens of Ancient Greece – sexually licentious, artistically vibrant and alive with the spirit of intellectual inquiry.
In other words: doomed, waiting for the Persians to come and spank them good and hard, and impose a form of conservatism at its most most bovine.
The notion that [Man] is a work in progress who can somehow be improved now strikes me as laughably naïve.
The notion that Man should have perfectability imposed upon him, yes; the notion that Man should be free to seek more than conservatives and other punisher-straighteners would allow, no.
The purpose of society should not be to transform men into something better, but to stop them cutting each other’s throats.
Why not both, and so much more besides? Conservatism is so inadequate.
Nevertheless, I like to think I’m keeping faith with the spirit of 1977.
Really? You say this like it's a good thing. Was it a time when Right and Good and Proper prevailed?
The punk movement was a starbust of rebellious energy, a nebula of rage.
Hardly. Those who pulled down the Berlin Wall with their bare hands, those who occupied Tahrir Square and levered out dictators: that, Toby, is what energy and rage looks like. Singing "I fought the law and the law won" or denying the Queen her very humanity isn't rebellious, it's not conservative, it's nothing at all really (more like nebulous rage). The punk movement was just a marketing opportunity: ever feel like you've been cheated?
the powers that be ... owe their exalted status to us, we don’t owe anything to them.
Never mind ancient times: that's the attitude of Athens today, and look where it's got them. In response to their anarchy (a word we got from the Greeks and which we can now reapply to them), truckloads of money from Toby Young and other EUers is on its way to them to maintain Order and Authority and a Sound Currency, and all other things with which real conservatives agree wholeheartedly.

Never mind all that, I hear Toby Young cry: what music are they listening to?
I may have gone bald and I may have swapped my Destroy T-shirt ...
'May' have? 'May' have? Which is it, man? A conservative knows what he is about, a conservative does not shilly-shally.
... for a Jermyn Street shirt ...
Now, here Toby Young and I agree. I have a few Jermyn Street shirts myself, but unlike Toby Young it isn't convenient for me to get to Jermyn Street. I purchase them over the internet, a medium that would be confined to the US military if conservatives had their way. The shirts arrive at my door in packages that are marked as coming from Milton Keynes. Some are marked as being Italian in at least part of their manufacture. They're nice shirts, but are they really "Jermyn Street shirts"? Does that mean anything any more? Conservatives worry about that sort of thing.

Toby Young might be associated with the Conservative Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in some way, but of itself this does not make him a conservative but rather some sort of liberal. It is the manner of a conservative to insist, sotto voce, that they really were quite naughty in their day, while radicals insist on their normality. The goth and the bikie who have carefully cultivated a forbidding appearance bewail being judged on that appearance, while your gran will regale you across a tea-tray about her adventures on VJ Day with a bunch of American sailors. It's all very complicated, much more than reductionists and partisans will or can allow. It's human, and it's more than conservatives can cope with, which is why neither Toby Young nor I (nor you, I suspect) are conservative.


  1. You're always worth a read Andrew.

    There is something really quite insufferable about Tobes.

    I suppose, after reading Ayn Rand when I was 17 I might have had similarly silly ideas, but I had certainly outgrown them by the time I was Tobe's age. And I hope I was never as smug, or as self satisfied as young Toby seems to be. And I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have given a rat's about Jermyn Street.

    Life isn't as simple or as straightforward as him and his ilk seem to think. I suspect life will beat some of the stupidity out of him. It usually does.

  2. "Kumbaya" is a transliteration of an pidgin spiritual originally called "Come By Here". It's more of an active request than a song of resignation.

  3. Have only recently discovered your blog, Andrew. It's comforting to know that others are in despair at the Liberal Party's slide into know-nothingism.
    This takedown of Toby Young reminded me of something I read years ago in a book called "The Idea of Decline in Western History", which quoted de Tocqueville:
    "Yes, I sometimes despair of mankind. Who doesn't ... I have always said that it is more difficult to stabilise and maintain liberty in our new democratic societies than in certain aristocratic societies in the past. But I shall never dare to think it impossible. And I pray to God lest He inspire me with the idea that one might as well give up trying."

  4. Interesting read, Andrew. Conservatives are overlooking the greater good by only focusing on themselves and their families.